I’ve heard it said that hindsight is foresight, and all of us can look back at moments in our lives where we made poor relationship choices, or stayed too long with a spouse or significant other who, in one way or another, mistreated us. It’s always easier to see where things went wrong when we look back at relationships than it is going into them.
In my previous post, I shared part of my courageous grandmother’s story and how she spent 20-plus years in an abusive marriage until she finally found the courage to break free in her early 40s. Last time, I discussed some of the reasons women stay too long in abusive relationships, such as fear, shame, and a tendency to believe the best. But how do we know when to go, or when to end a harmful relationship?
One of the most important things my grandmother shared with me about her experience is how she missed or ignored many early warning signs in her dating relationship with my grandfather. The National Domestic Violence Hotline calls the warning signs of potentially abusive relationships, “red flags,”and taken together or even alone, they can point to dangerous things to come.
The red flags that my grandmother experienced include:
Addiction. While addiction of any kind—to gambling, porn, alcohol, or drugs—can be a huge red flag, sometimes addiction is not obvious in the early stages of a relationship. My grandfather’s progression from a college freshman who liked to party to an abusive alcoholic husband did not happen overnight. Even so, my grandmother recalls worrying that he might have a drinking problem when they were dating, but she overlooked it as a maturity issue he’d eventually outgrow. I also have a friend who has been in and out of an abusive relationship for years with a man who struggles with drug addiction. Addiction is never an excuse for abusive behavior, but it can be part of the cause, so it is something to watch for.
Jealousy. My grandfather had a jealous nature, and he was aggravated from the beginning by my grandmother’s vivacious personality. His jealousy reared its head a few days before the wedding when a male friend was taking my grandmother’s wedding portrait at her house. After being banished outside so he wouldn’t see the wedding dress, my grandfather skulked around in the bushes, peaking in windows. It was obvious to everyone that he was more worried about her being in a room with another guy than getting a glimpse of her wedding dress. When my grandmother saw him peeping at them, she was so embarrassed that she almost called off the wedding.
Controlling. My grandfather was also very controlling, even when they were dating. He had to know where my grandmother was, what she was doing, and who she was with at all times. During their newlywed years, he traveled for work, and refused to let her go out at night with her female friends while he was gone. Just to make sure, he’d call her nearly every hour to check that she was at home. My friend’s boyfriend is also controlling, and often isolates her from friends and family (who are not his biggest fans), a common technique of abusers.
Abuse. Obviously, any form of physical abuse is a reason to end a relationship. But it often starts gradually. My grandfather started with verbal abuse, then began pushing my grandmother around, and graduated to hitting her, often with an object (such as the phone). Once, he hit the side of her head hard enough to rupture her eardrum, but she never told the doctor how it really happened. In my friend’s case, her boyfriend started with aggressive behavior, then began pushing and striking her, and has even tried to choke her.
There are also different types of abuse to look out for, including emotional, mental, verbal, and sexual that women often dismiss as less serious, but can cause psychological damage and often lead to physical abuse. One of my mother’s husbands was mentally and verbally abusive to me. He was jealous of my real father, and became so psychologically controlling that I was afraid to say, “I love you” to my father on the phone, or to even mention my father’s name in front of him. The verbal abuse got so bad that I once begged my father to let me come live with him and his new wife, confiding that my stepdad “beat me with his words.” Psychological abuse can be crippling, and verbal abuse can hurt as much as a slap in the face, sometimes worse, because it wounds your soul.
Even if we go into a relationship with our eyes wide open, we can sometimes find ourselves in an abusive relationship after we are already physically and/or emotionally involved. That is why it’s so important to tell someone you trust if your partner is harming you. My grandmother kept the physical abuse she was suffering a secret from others for way too many years—something she came to regret. But she couldn’t keep it a secret from her children, who often saw their dad hitting or pushing her in a drunken rage. They begged her for years to leave him, and thankfully she finally did.
I’ve shared my grandmother’s story because I have a friend who is in an on-again, off-again relationship with a physically abusive man. I’ve watched so many loved ones like my friend struggle and fail to leave dangerous relationships, often out of desperation. Many of these women have kids, who are watching and unfortunately learning from what they see, and are at risk of repeating it in their own lives, either as victims or abusers. No child should see his dad (or any man) beating up on his mom. No child should listen, choked in fear, from her bed at night as some guy screams profanities at her mother and threatens to harm her.
I pray my friend will find the courage to leave for good before it is too late, if not for herself, then for her children who are watching.